“Stillness of hand cannot make up for emptiness of heart”, as the celebrated photographer Rodney Smith once said. Yet, neither can megapixels, inner-axis stabilization, or really nice glass... an empty heart rarely makes meaningful and lasting frames. Because the best images, are always a reflection of whom we are. The best photographs have roots that are deep. They come from the inner workings of our lives. And if what resides within is empty, there’s a good chance our frames will seem vacant as well.
Let me put this in less abstract and philosophical terms. Have you ever had this experience? You purchase a new camera or lens. The gear is pristine and perfect in every way. The technology is top of the line, best in class maybe even best in the world. Bundled up with excitement you go out and capture photographs, but they fall flat. Why? It isn’t the lens or camera’s fault. The gear is doing its job. But good gear isn’t enough.
Great photographs require depth, passion and soul.
That’s what makes photography so interesting. Two photographers can stand in the same spot and create very different frames. And this all hinges on the idea that who we are, affects how and what, we see.
I was recently out surfing in my hometown with a friend. Suddenly, a whale breached. “What a beautiful sight!” I said out loud. I stared in awe and wonder. I felt at peace and intensely alive. Looking over at my friend, I saw panic and fear etched on her scrunched up face. She stared in horror. I had forgotten that she was intensely afraid of whales. What I had seen as a kind and benevolent, she saw as doom and death.
Throughout my career as a photographer, author and teacher, I’ve come to realize that what we bring to the camera most directly affects the quality of the photographs we make. Yet, a deep soul and heart brimming with passion can’t make pictures by themselves. The camera matters equally as much as it can help or get in the way. The camera has the power to cloud or clarify your vision. It can amplify and augment our voice. It can stifle or it can extend our reach. Without the right camera or the right lens, the depths of one’s soul, has no way to speak.
That’s why gear and mastery of one’s gear matters so much. That’s why we read dozens of reviews before we purchase that one special camera or that new lens. That’s why are read articles, go to workshops, and practice with our gear everyday. It isn’t about getting a shiny new toy. It’s a matter of the heart and soul. And if there’s an element of gear that can help me to further express what’s inside, I’m all in. That’s why I finally ordered a new camera just yesterday.
This new camera (a Sony α9) arrives on next week and I’m excited but nervous as well. I’m excited because of the potential that is there. As a portrait photographer I hadn’t anticipated wanting this camera at all. Then I used it to capture a few portraits and I was hooked. The camera not only worked well, but more importantly it felt right. Then while working with the camera for the first time at Kando Trip 1.0 north of Santa Barbara in May, I met and photographed a wolf. That pushed me over the edge.
At first, the wolf eyed me in a primal and cautious way (kind of like many of the portrait subjects I work with as well). She stared with such keen yellow eyes. I worked slowly and quietly, seeking to gain her trust. Rather than create a barrier, the camera helped me to connect. And more, reviewing the images I realized that had it amplified and deepened my voice. That sealed the deal. This may sound crazy, and it is a bit crazy, but that experience with that wolf convinced me that getting that camera was the right thing to do.
So then, why am I nervous about getting this new camera as well? Mostly, because I know how easy it is let the newness of the camera nudge me off course. A new camera is a powerful and wonderful thing but it’s also difficult to learn. I have to step up my game, grow, learn and figure out all the controls. I have to experiment, practice and test out new ideas. Because at the end of the day, good photography isn’t about the camera or the lens, it’s about me and it’s about you. It’s about our willingness to bring our own vision, voice and personality to the craft. It’s about using a tool to capture and express those inner ideas.